Grace Cossington Smith was above all a painter of landscapes and later, of interiors. In the 1920s, when she painted her pellucid watercolour of the Eastern Road, she sought to invest her landscape painting with clarity of light and compositional vitality. This watercolour was developed from a detailed pencil sketch (to be found in one of the sketchbooks in the National Gallery’s collection) in which she worked out the composition in great detail. She wrote notes to herself in the margins of the drawing; ‘1. direction/ 2. contour … simple masses conforming to whole’ – reminders of the formal ideas she wanted to underpin the final composition.1 In the upper part of the drawing she sketched clouds; by the time she came to the watercolour she enlivened the sky with radiating arcs of pure colour.
Compared with her output of oil paintings, Grace Cossington Smith’s watercolours constitute a small part of her total number of works. Yet, she brought to the medium the same qualities she sought in her oils. She wanted a fresh, unworried approach. This approach was even more essential in transparent watercolour than in oils. The preliminary drawing in pencil allowed her to achieve a direct attack.
The subject of this work, the Eastern Road, was very near Cossington Smith’s family home in Kuring-gai Avenue in the Sydney suburb of Turramurra. The semi-rural landscape (now a leafy suburban one) was the source of most of the artist’s landscape subjects in the 1920s. Although she was also interested in the urban landscape at this time (made dynamic by the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge), her own local landscape was full of engaging drama. Many years after she completed her watercolour, she told Daniel Thomas she had been pleased that, as she sat making her drawing of the Eastern Road, a figure came onto the road, animating the composition. Also, a traction engine came rumbling up the hill, the driver bringing it as close to the artist as he could: ‘I looked up’ she remembered, ‘he was grinning … I suppose I might have been run over.’2
Andrew Sayers 2002
1Illustraited in Daniel Thomas, Grace Cossington Smith: A life, from drawings in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1993, p.24.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002